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Understanding Phonemic Awareness and Phonological Awareness & How to Develop Them

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Phonemic awareness and phonological awareness are two important topics when teaching children literacy in preschool and earlier grades. Both create a firm foundation for your students' success in reading.

Most people think phonemic awareness and phonological awareness are interchangeable terms, but that's not the case. Although they're relatable terms, differences exist between the two.

Let's separate these terms, develop an understanding of the differences and see how they improve early literacy skills.

Phonological awareness

Phonological awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate larger units of spoken words and sentences. It includes creating compound words, using syllables, phonemes onset and rime.

Below, you'll find examples of units of sound ranging from the largest to the smallest:

  • Syllables consist of a single unit of pronunciation with a vowel sound and possibly consonants to create parts or entire words.
  • Onset is the first phonological unit of words. The letter “c” in the word car is considered an onset.
  • Rime includes the number of letters that follow after an onset. Using the word “car” as an example, rime is the letter that comes after the onset. In this case, the rime is “ar”.
  • Phonemes are the smallest units of spoken language. When we separate the word “cat” into phonemes, we discover there are 3 phonemes: c/a/t. There are 44 phonemes in the English language. 

It's essential for students to develop phonological skills early on so that they can establish strong reading skills. As well, it's the first step that leads to building phonemic awareness skills.

Phonemic awarness

Where phonological awareness focuses on the larger units of sound, phonemic awareness skills emphasize hearing and manipulating the smallest unit of sound called phonemes. Phonemic awareness is a subcategory of phonological awareness. Both are equally important to learn.

Phonemic awareness skills are frequently the last part of phonological awareness to develop.

How do phonological awareness skills develop?

A teacher and a student work together in the classroom on phonemic and phonological awareness activities.

Phonological awareness skills are often taught first as a foundation because kids find it easier to understand bigger units of sound compared to smaller units. Taking a step-by-step approach helps your students learn at a comfortable pace.

Teach your students how a word can be segmented into larger units

  1. Show them how to blend words that form compound words like "washroom" or "bookkeeping". 
  2. Break this word apart into two separate units to show how two words make up a single word, such as wash-room or book-keeping. 
  3. Write a list of similar words you can use as examples to help your students understand this concept.

The next step involves introducing syllables. Show your students several examples of how to break words down into smaller units of sound. For instance, the word "happiness" can be fragmented into syllables such as hap/pi/ness.

Give your students time to practice bigger units of language before you teach individual sounds in a word. They'll catch on faster when you break down awareness skills into simple and manageable steps.  

Consider incorporating reading strategies to complement your teaching of phonological and phonemic awareness to your students.

The phonological awareness continuum

Wooden letters in a classroom for practicing phonological awareness.

It makes good sense to follow a path when teaching specific awareness skills to kids. The phonological awareness continuum describes a series of steps to help teachers instruct students in a simplified manner. Begin with phonemes, onset-rime, syllables, and finally, words.

So what do all these terms mean and how do they help kids achieve their reading skills?

Phoneme

Phonemes are the smallest unit of sound. It refers to single letters or a group of letters with sounds that form words. Examples of phonemes include how the letter "p" sounds in words like "pretzel", or the letter "d" in "ladder".

Phonemes are a vital part of learning phonological and phonemic awareness.

Onset-Rime

An onset-rime is defined as two parts of one word that refer to the phonological units of a spoken syllable. They can be blended and segmented, similar to phonemes. It's important to note that not all words have onsets.

Examples of onset-rimes include words like slip, dog, wing, and bed.

Learning onset-rimes sets the stage for students to learn spelling and reading. When they learn the components of phonological awareness, they develop stronger reading comprehension and spelling skills.

Onset

An onset is the first unit (or sound) of a single-syllable word that starts with a consonant such as the letter "w" in wing.

Rime

Rimes consist of consonants and vowels that follow an onset ending in a consonant. Continuing from the example above, the rime in "wing" would be "ing".

Syllable

Syllables are parts of a word that have one vowel sound and are sometimes followed by a consonant to form a unit. Each syllable joins together to form a word. 

Using the word "mountain", the syllables would be moun/tain with the first syllable containing a short "o" vowel sound.

A simplified way to show syllables to your class involves clapping out each syllable. This is a great way to help your students understand syllables and build phonemic awareness skills.

Word

A word is defined as a combination of sounds, including phonemes and syllables. They make up a single unit of auditory speech.

Words are the most basic part of the phonological awareness continuum.

Phonological awareness activities

Phonological awareness activities are important teaching tools that help young children to learn each aspect of the continuum. Kids who struggle with learning disabilities like dyslexia or those who have trouble with spoken sounds benefit from these activities.

Phonological awareness activities help students learn skills like:

  • Blending
  • Segmenting
  • Adding
  • Deleting
  • Substitution

Each of these activities can apply to words, syllables, and onset-rimes. 

You can try many activities with your students to boost their phonological awareness:

1. Turn sentences into a game. Use a sentence like "The cat wears a hat." Involve your students by tapping five children on the head as you say each word. Ask them how many words in the sentence. Keep playing this game with new sentences. Be sure to include more students in this game.  

2. Rhyming games. Make it a fun game to play by rhyming words such as "The fat cat wears a hat and walks with a bat". You can include rhyming circles where you provide a word and each student adds a rhyming word. See how many words your class comes up with!

3. The mystery bag. Put five items in the bag that start with a letter. Give the class hints to see if they can figure out what's inside the bag. You can put plush toys, plastic figurines, or photos in the bag such as a cat, cow, chicken, and corn. Tell your students these are items you can find on a farm.

4. Use educational YouTube videos that invite student participation or an active discussion.

Make phonological awareness activities fun for the entire class!

How do phonemic awareness skills develop?

When you look at the phonological awareness continuum, it makes sense to begin with phonological awareness activities and end with phonemic awareness instruction. Students who achieve awareness understand how to isolate, blend, segment, and manipulate spoken words and individual sounds.

Phonemic awareness skills develop through fine-tuning and proficiency of phonological awareness. Relate past knowledge to new instructions to make learning easier.

Show your students how to segment words into letters and make substitutions to form new words. In this example, we'll take the word "lap" and segment it into l/a/p. By substituting one letter, we replace "l" with a "c" to form the new word "cap".

 Phonemic awareness requires students to pay attention to letters and their unique sounds. Young children learn how to read when they can sound out the letters of each word. Achieving this state of awareness creates a substantial foundation to build strong reading comprehension and vocabulary skills.

Three levels of phonemic awareness skills

Two young girls write with paper and a pencil as they complete phonemic awareness activities in the classroom.

Phonemic awareness skills can be broken down into three categories: phonemic blending, segmentation, and manipulation. Below, you'll find each category and its definition with examples. 

Phonemic blending

Phonemic blending begins with the teacher giving students phonemes they must blend into a single word

The first, middle, and end sounds are blended together to create that word. For example, the word "boil" would be broken down into b/oy/l

Phonemic segmentation

Segmentation is isolating individual phonemes into one word. A great way for kids to learn how to segment words into phonemes would be to break down the sounds in a word. They can take a word like "bat" and segment it into b/a/t.

Encourage your students to sound out phonemes to help them to recognize written words and how they sound when spoken.

Phonemic manipulation

Phonemic manipulation requires students to add, delete, or substitute phonemes in a word. Children learn new words when they're given the chance to hear spoken words. Emphasize listening skills when teaching phonemic awareness.

Deletion

Deletion is the removal of phonemes in words and how they sound after your students omit the letter. It can be an intentional or unintentional deletion. Here's an example of how to use deletions:

Using the word "care", remove the letter "c" and you're left with the word a/r/e.

Addition

Unlike deletions, an addition inserts another phoneme into a word. Additions can be intentional or unintentional, especially when children misunderstand a particular word.

An example of an addition would be to add the letter "s" to "cat" to arrive at the word "cats".

Substitution

Substitutions occur when phonemes are replaced in a word. This is one way for students to learn new words. A simple example would be to take the word "lean", replace the "l" with "b" and come up with the new word "bean".

Phonemic awareness activities

A teacher and two students complete phonemic awareness activities in the classroom.

Phonemic awareness teaching strategies should incorporate spoken blending and segmenting activities to keep students engaged. You can introduce several activities to help your students receive the most benefits from phonemic awareness:

  • Teach phonics along with phonological and phonemic awareness. It'll improve their overall educational experience.
  • Instill a positive attitude to help your students build their reading and writing skills.
  • Clap out sounds in a new word to show students how to blend sounds together and learn the definition of the new word.
  • Incorporate educational videos or images and games to help facilitate learning. Make all activities fun and interesting.
  • Dedicate time to providing explicit teaching to ensure inclusive learning. Some students catch on quickly, while others require explicit instruction.

Try to cover other phonemic awareness strategies like phoneme isolation, blending, segmenting, and phoneme manipulation with adding, deleting, and substitution exercises.

You can try cutting-edge teaching strategies to give your students the best possible outcome in their learning journey.

The importance of phonological and phonemic awareness instruction

It is essential for educators to help children develop early literacy and reading skills through phonological and phonemic awareness strategies. These valuable concepts should support struggling readers or those who find it difficult to learn new words.

It's crucial for young children to learn how to read. They need to understand that words are made of both big and smaller units of sound. Listen to your students as they read to ensure they grasp the concepts of phonological and phonemic awareness.

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